Daniel Carpenter-Gold is Managing Editor of Harvard Environmental Law Review.This post is part of the Environmental Law Review Syndicate.
It’s done. Like a reluctant Odysseus, we have fastened ourselves to the mast of emissions reductions with Bungee cords (not too tight, now!) and stuffed one ear full of wax—just in case those cheap, dirty fossil-fuel Sirens have something interesting to say. But what is this “Paris Agreement”?
What did we promise?
After some initial optimism, debate over the outcome document has been mostly about precisely what flavor of evil the negotiators have handed us. There are interesting framing moves in the document—the target for a cap on temperature increases is being nudged down from 2°C to 1.5°C, the net-zero “carbon neutrality” approach makes carbon sinks and carbon-capture technology more prominent, and the $100 billion promised in the Copenhagen Accord ended up in the non-binding Paris Decision rather than the Agreement itself—but the real action is in Art. 4, dealing with Nationally Determined Contributions (“NDCs”).
Since Luke Grunbaum at the UCLA Journal of Environmental Law & Policy has already put out a great breakdown of the NDC approach, I’ll keep it short: the NDCs are statements from each country (or group, in the case of the EU) laying out how much they will decrease their greenhouse gas emissions. Unlike the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement does not require specific emissions reduction from each country. Instead, Art. 4.9 requires each nation to issue an NDC every five years, and Art. 4.3 demands that each new NDC “will represent a progression beyond” the country’s previous commitment. (NDCs are also supposed to represent each country’s “highest possible ambition”—which raises the question whether countries might overpromise and get stuck with an unattainable goal. Then again, overly ambitious goals have not historically been a problem for the UNFCCC.)
Nearly all UNFCCC parties submitted Intended NDCs (“INDCs”) prior to the Paris negotiations, so we already have an idea of what NDCs will look like. The first impression is that they are too little, too late, but this is not news (which the head of the Secretariat made clear by threatening to “chop the head off” of any reporter that treated the INDCs’ shortcomings as new information). For our part, the U.S. INDC has promised a 26–28% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 (measured against 2005 levels), which is roughly equivalent to the 32% reduction by 2030 that the White House says the Clean Power Plan will provide.